Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein. Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes. Abrams Image, 2007. 200 pages.
This book is what you might expect from two intelligent, very funny guys who majored in philosophy at Harvard, pursued other careers after graduation, and retained their philosophical edge. Tom Cathcart worked with street gangs in Chicago, doctors at Blue Cross and Blue Shield, and dropped in and out of various divinity schools. Dan Klein wrote jokes for a number of comedians including Flip Wilson and Lily Tomlin, designed stunts for the TV show Candid Camera, and continues to pen thrillers.
The fun begins in the dedication: “To the memory of our philosophical grandfather GROUCHO MARX, who summed up our basic ideology when he said, ‘These are my principles; if you don’t like them, I have others’.”
In “Philogagging,” the authors introduce their approach and draw a witty comparison between jokes and philosophy:
They tease the mind in similar ways. That’s because philosophy and jokes proceed from the same impulse: to confound our sense of the way things are, to flip our worlds upside down, and to ferret out hidden, often uncomfortable, truths about life. What the philosopher calls an insight, the gagster calls a zinger.
In ten chapters with heavy titles like “Metaphysics,” “Epistemology,” and “Existentialism,” Cathcart and Klein concisely explain philosophical ideas and pop one hilarious zinger after another. The following joke takes a cue from Aristotle’s concept of essentialism (essential properties make a thing what it is, Aristotle said, whereas accidental properties determine how it is):
When Thompson hit seventy, he decided to change his lifestyle completely so he could live longer. He went on a strict diet, he jogged, he swam, and he took sunbaths. In just three months’ time, Thompson lost thirty pounds, reduced his waist by six inches, and expanded his chest by five inches. Svelte and tan, he decided to top it all off with a sporty haircut. Afterward, while stepping out of the barbershop, he was hit by a bus.
As he lay dying, he cried out, “God, how could you do this to me?”
And a voice from the heavens responded, “To tell you the truth, Thompson, I didn’t recognize you.”
After defining utilitarianism (the moral rightness of an act is determined solely by its consequences), the authors uncork this gasser:
Mrs. O’Callahan instructed the artist painting her portrait to add to it a gold bracelet on each of her wrists, a strand of pearls around her neck, ruby earrings, and a diamond tiara.
The artist pointed out that would be tantamount to lying.
Said Mrs. O’Callahan, “Look, my husband’s running around with a young blonde. After I die, I want her to go crazy looking for the jewelry.
This book contains all kinds of wonderful jokes, many of which would shake an Immanuel Kant type with belly laughs (Kant is said to have told only one joke in his life and that a rather dull one). There’s even a mock timeline, “Great Moments in the History of Philosophy,” with such rib ticklers as these:
399 B. C. Socrates has a hemlock and soda—with a twist.
1504 A prankster puts a “Random Acts of Kindness” bumper sticker on Nick Machiavelli’s carriage. Niccolo Machiavelli, 1469-1527
Reviewed by Robert B. Gentry
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Dave Easton. Leatherneck Sea Stories: Recollections of Marines, Korea, and the Corps of the 1950s. Canopic Publishing, 2007.
A good memoir, like a good oral history in book form, is very readable, engaging, historically accurate, and credibly revealing of its narrator. Author Dave Easton gives us such a work in Leatherneck Sea Stories.
Having traveled extensively in the Midwest, I see and hear in Easton the clear, direct, plain-spoken qualities typical of folks in that region. He reflects a solid American tradition that eschews hyperbole and literary embellishment, one that gets to the core of experience honestly and simply, sometimes with powerful understatement.
Born and raised on Chicago’s South Side, Easton served two hitches in the Marine Corps, the first from January 1951 to January 1954, the second 1957 – 1962. This book (214 pp) deals mostly with his major experiences in the earlier period when he served with the 2nd Marine Division in North Carolina and then with the 1st Division in Korea.
Ever mindful of the reader, Easton begins with a “Glossary of Marine Speak.” For example, MLR is “main line of resistance,” where the author spent many a dangerous hour in the final bloody months of the Korean War; birdlegs (nickname for a Marine with scrawny leg calves); leatherneck (synonym for Marine dating back to the days when Marines on sailing ships fought with cutlasses and swords and wore high protective leather collars); piss tube (155 mm artillery shell used as a urinal); salt (a Marine with lengthy service); sea stories (ideas and tales exchanged by Marines about subjects of any nature).
Easton’s Glossary contains terms like the following that we Army “dogfaces” of the 50’s and 60’s also used and I’m guessing they’re still part of “military speak”: boondocks (any place in the field whether on maneuvers or in combat), head (bathroom), police call (the command for all troopers to clean up a unit area).
Informative, colorful, in places downright funny, suggestive of qualities that make the Marine Corps distinctive, the Glossary sets a narrative tone for the memoir. In thirty short chapters Easton recollects the rough discipline of basic training; fun and mischief on liberty (leave); sergeants whom he had run-ins with; terrible combat in below-freezing weather; fighting bunker rats, “the only things in Korea that outnumbered the Chinese”; and other happenings and ways of life in the Corps of the early 50’s.
In basic training, Easton says, “the terms ‘maggot,’ ‘shitbird,’ and ‘idiot’ were interchangeable and applied to all hands” who fouled up. A boot (Marine recruit) who failed to shave had to go to front of his platoon where
his bucket was placed over his head and with his nondominant hand he was ordered to take a strain on the handle. He was then ordered to reach up under the bucket and commence shaving. After a stroke or two, the next command was “mark time, double time, march.” When their faces healed, these guys were faithful shavers for the rest of their time in boot camp.
Most of the chapters are entitled with first names or nicknames like Bob (Bob Garza), a fellow Chicagoan who joined the Marines with Easton; Pop, an old salt decorated for valor in World War II and “a hard charger” in Korea who braved Chinese 76s (devastating artillery) to man an abandoned observation post; Doug (Anthony P. Douglas) who during “a ferocious firefight” took command of his patrol when “the lieutenant came unglued.” For this action Douglas was awarded the Bronze Star.
One friend whom Easton recalls especially fondly is “Greek” (John Kyristi, Jr.). After meeting some French Foreign Legion troops while on liberty in Oran, Algeria, Greek persuaded the author to sign a blood oath to return to Oran and join the Legion after their Marine hitch was up. “Obviously this contract was never executed,” Easton writes, “but I still have my copy in my scrapbook.” On p. 97 the “contract” appears in Greek’s own words.
Easton gives a visual dimension to his memoir with telling photos of Greek, Bob, Doug, a number of his other buddies, and Marines in action. He also includes news clippings of his division's bloody struggles to retake “Vegas Hill” near “Old Baldy Mountain.”
I remember following these battles while a newspaper carrier in high school. I’ve always been interested in history especially as it unfolds. Korea was of particular interest then because a neighbor friend was a Marine serving there and we all hoped for his welfare and safe return. Fortunately he did return but with a bad limp, the result of a nasty leg wound. I never heard him complain about his disability. He just said he was prepared to live with it the rest of his life. Reading Easton’s “Scars” (pp. 186-7), a section on Marine wounds, I immediately thought of Bob Baird.
This book does not glorify war or the Corps. Easton is almost self-effacing about his own hazardous duty in “a police action” [my quotes] marked by long stretches of trench warfare and agonizingly slow attempts at armistice that recall the Western Front in World War I. The author is brutally honest about his most fearful day in combat, March 26, 1953. And more than 50 years later his sense of Semper Fidelis still rings proudly: “Once a Marine always a Marine.”
Canopic Publishing, an innovative press in picturesque Gatlinburg, Tennessee, is to be commended for adding this memoir to its growing list of important nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. I highly recommend that readers check out these publications at www.canopicpublishing.com
As for Dave Easton, as he says in his Preface, “my health and memory permitting, another volume [about his second Marine hitch that included embassy duty] might be considered for the future.” Let’s hope so, Dave!
Reviewed by Robert B. Gentry
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Darlene H. Eaton. The Osceola Community Club. Cumberland House Publishing, 2004. Awarded First Place in Literary Fiction and Book of the Year by the Florida Writers' Association.
I've read many sensory stories in my time, but I can think of only two that made me hungry: "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and The Osceola Community Club. Remember all those delectable dishes in Irving's "Legend"? Those "heaped-up platters of cakes"! Those "dainty slapjacks, well buttered, and garnished with honey"!
Well, Darlene Eaton gives us equally tasty fare in The Osceola Community Club. "Hoppin' John," "Bird of Paradise," "Copper Pennies," "Sweet Potato Muggin," "Lazy Gal Brunswick Stew," "Poverty Chili"—just a few of the down-home delights in this novel! No, I won't give away any recipe. Read the book; enjoy the cooking and much more. This much more includes an extraordinary variety of story food served up by Cassandra Burquette, Eaton's main character/narrator.
In 2002 Cassandra arrives in Osceola, Florida, with a group of clubwomen for a day of antiquing. She barely recognizes this time-forgotten village where as a child she spent many hours visiting her grandmother Nanny Ellie and her cousin Della.
In "a hole of a bookstore," Cassandra finds Osceola's Favorite Foods Compiled by the Osceola Community Club, 1958. This "fundraiser of a cookbook" arouses memories of an unforgettable summer when Cassandra was 12 and felt her first womanly stirrings. As she relishes the cookbook, Cassandra also recalls later experiences, like her "Take Us Back" speech at the reunion of her 1964 high school class. Some of her memories stand alone as delightful stories like the "Civil Defense" tale (featured on the Fresh and Ripe page of this web site). Others sparkle as vignettes, like this one:
Christmas Eve morn. 1958. And colder 'n bare babies' butts hangin' downside in an outhouse. Granddaddy indulged my Nanny Ellie with the luxury of a nighttime burr pot beneath her bed. But the rest of us had to hustle our shivering butts to the outhouse, flashlight in hand, cold be damned. Don't never let anybody tell you it don't get cold in Florida. There's more to Florida than Miami Beach, folks. Wind could evermore rip snort up and down Nanny Ellie's hill, I'm here to testify....
Eaton gives us Southern characters we've seen before and endows them with her own fresh vitality: For example, the no-nonsense grandmother, tough and straight-talking on the outside, loving and caring on the inside; the extra special childhood friend you told your secrets to; the stupid, self righteous preacher; admirable eccentrics; snooty girls; horny boys; gossipers; racist Christians; devious aristocrats; segregated blacks with deferential masks for whites; Atticus-Finch-like whites who defend the downtrodden; and others—all of whom give us vivid insights into small-town Florida of the 1950's.
On just about every page, Eaton puts a picture, drawing, or icon. These devices plus the recipes complement and underscore setting, characters, and action.
To my mind, the author's shining achievement is Cassandra Burquette. Perky, loquacious, sensitive, funny, keen, nostalgic, Cassandra shows traces of some of the most memorable women in Southern literature. Mostly, though, she is an original who galvanizes Eaton's vision of Osceola into a microcosm of the last days of the Old South.
Reviewed by Robert B. Gentry
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Sohrab Homi Fracis. Ticket to Minto: Stories of India and America. University of Iowa Press, 2001. Winner of the 2001 University of Iowa Short Fiction Award.
This collection of twelve stories has received stellar reviews in America and India, is being taught at a number of universities, and can be found in hundreds of libraries across the U. S. Presently, Elfenbein Verlag Berlin, a German press, is negotiating with the University of Iowa to acquire German rights to the collection.
As critics have noted, Sohrab Homi Fracis crafts his stories superbly; skillfully arranges them as companion pieces, alternating between India and America; and poignantly reveals the differences between immersion in India's culture and life as an Indian in America. Many of the stories are about Indians who are Parsis, a people who fled Persia (now Iran) centuries ago and in dwindling numbers still practice their Zoroastrian faith with its ritual use of fire.
In the one lukewarm review the book got, John Green errs blatantly in calling most of the stories "first-person accounts." Only four of the stories are told in first person. In the other eight, Fracis clearly uses third-person. Further, I take sharp issue with Green's view that "these stories often lack a clear and consistent narrative voice and tend to end with contrived imagery of closure."
All art is contrived. The test, of course, is whether contrivances are plausible and convincing. For some fiction writers, even some notable ones, the consistent narrative voice becomes stylized and tedious. At worst it constricts plot and undermines characterization. Fracis avoids all these pitfalls.
He creates a rich variety of Indian characters, beginning with the Parsi schoolboy whose religious faith helps him defeat a bully in the first story, "Ancient Fire" and ending with an Indian-American whose artistic faith keeps him going as a talented author in the last story, "The Mark Twain Overlook."
I notice an underlying sensibility in this collection that appears almost like a character. This sensibility is upper class, cultured, dynamic. It thrives on nuance, at times challenges with ambiguity. It lives as an uneasy minority in India and in America. It values stability and family life but prefers mobility and single life. It searches for love less by convention and more on its own complex terms. It portrays promiscuity with serio-comic effect. It feels for the downtrodden and is painfully aware of class divisions that contribute to India's misery. It casts a keen eye at American provincialism and residual racism. It understands the dilemma of mainstream Americans who are identified with past wrongs to minorities and are trying to right the wrongs but in ways that bring the mainstream more condemnation. It empathizes with the elderly, especially with those who live their declining years with calm and dignity.
It often closes stories with images of remarkable subtlety like the broken tree branch in "Stray" and the drifting hairs of a pickled rabbit's paw in "Rabbit's Foot" (stories in which students from India feel the tug of their country's traditions and life in contemporary America). Arguably, the most skillful use of imagery occurs in the conclusion of "Keeping Time." Here music and writing interweave to underscore an aging piano teacher's alleviation of frustrations and sadness with her stoic acceptance.
These and other engaging stories comprise this excellent premier collection. We are pleased to include in the Fresh & Ripe section "The Reader," an earlier story by Sohrab Homi Fracis.
Fracis' website is http://www.fracis.com/work1.htm
Reviewed by Robert B. Gentry
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Robert B. Gentry. Tips for Collecting Stories: A Guide to Developing an Oral History. Rhiannon Press, 2004.
Genealogy is an extremely popular pastime these days - and for good reason. We all like to feel a connection with the Past. It makes us feel more confident about the Future!
So this week's "Little Something Extra" is going to be a wonderful help for all of you who are collecting stories for your writing. It's a book by Robert B. Gentry called simply Tips for Collecting Stories and it takes you through all the essential steps to gather and organise useful information for your History.
What I really like about Bob's book is that he sets his chapters out using bullets - a man after my own heart! If I had a dollar for every bullet I drew on the board in my Other Life as a teacher, my Running Away Fund would be overflowing! So this little book is a brilliant teaching aid for all of the chalkies in our midst.
Here are a couple of tips I'm sure Bob won't mind me sharing with you:
The ideal interview is one in which you listen. This simple advice will help you get unexpected information from your subject. Instead of having a list of questions you MUST get answered, let your subject tell you things as he/she remembers them. You'll be delighted at what this simple technique will uncover!
Ask open-ended questions not closed ones. This tip is useful in every social gathering. Who among us hasn't spent an agonising few minutes being quizzed by someone asking questions to which there's only a yes/no response?
Here are some examples of open-ended questions Bob gives in his book:
What games did you play as a child?
What do you remember about school?
You can see how these questions could lead to wonderful recollections. Notice that you don't ask for any specific type of answer. You don't ask about the best games you played or your favourite subject at school. You ask general questions and let your subject decide whether they are positive or negative memories.
Once you've accumulated all your information, the next step is to decide how you're going to put it all together and Bob shows an effective way to do this; then he takes you step by step through his own book, in order to, as he says, explain how I developed an extensive oral history and show you how the process unfolded.
If you're just starting to collect information about your family or if you're ready to write a history, you'll find this book invaluable.
Think this isn't for you? Think again. Can you see yourself being interested in collecting stories from your family, your school, your business, your church, your club, society, association, athletic team, sport team or just about any other group you belong to?
What about collecting stories from people united by an event, a time or a place? For instance:
- eyewitnesses to a recent (or past) tragedy
- veterans of a particular war or battle
- people involved in home front activities during a war
- women or men in non-traditional roles
- survivors of life-threatening illnesses
Bob gives many more suggestions for these broader categories of oral history. It's enough to make you want to get out these and listen!
Reviewed by Jennifer Stewart, editor of the international newsletter in her article "A Little Something Extra" in The Write Way. www.write101.com
Order Tips for Collecting Stories at Canopic Publishing Bookstore www.canopicjar.com
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David L. Hoof. Little Gods. Chiaroscuro Press, a division and imprint of Dark Shadows Press, 2006. Hoof has published four other internationally acclaimed novels under the pen name David Lorne, including Blind Rage published exclusively in Japanese. For Suicide Diary he used the pen name Grace Alter. Triple Jeopardy, his seventh novel, appeared in 2010 just as Impact Motion Pictures began production on his screenplay Landfill.
All Souls' Day 1963, 20 days before the assassination of President Kennedy. After a night of drunken sex at nearby Smith College, Harry Sunder staggers through a storm into the Wexford burial grounds and spots shadowy figures at a gravesite digging like demons.... He's still alive, one figure booms. Then spastic lightning strobes on shovels that batter a writhing body. Drenched and panicky, football-star Harry stumbles into his dorm at exclusive Wexford Academy just before bed check, his voice ghostly. "I think somebody just got killed." But Harry is still under the influence, his story sounds incredible, especially to brainy Bronxie Hadron, and Harry himself can't be sure of what he saw. The same night Cody Boyle, Wexford's star student/athlete, is missing. To Travis Mather, the novel's narrator, protagonist, Cody's close friend and alter ego, nothing matters but finding the only person who makes Wexford bearable. (1-2)
Thus begins a tale that has much more than the typical mystery to engage the discerning reader. For example:
Setting: Author David Hoof places fictional Wexford Academy near the Berkshires highlands in western Massachusetts. In some ways the school resembles the real prestigious boys' schools of the 1950's and early 60's. Wealthy parents sent their children to these places with great expectations they would become high achievers in the classroom and in extra-curricular activities, especially athletics, and thus qualify for the best universities. School policies limited contact with girls to chaperoned parties and dances; saltpeter was often used to dampen sexual desires but with little effect; homosexuality was about as frequent as in public schools and pederasty sometimes reared its ugly head. These schools were high-pressure training grounds for America's future leaders then, and I suspect even more so today when most schools (public and private) have become, like fictional Wexford in 1986, co-educational. Now girls are expected to compete successfully with boys and both are schooled to be stellar citizens and leaders in a multicultural United States. Thus student achievement and success in life enhance the schools' reputations, assure that bright youths keep enrolling, and please its educators who administer and teach with these essentials foremost in mind.
However, at Wexford Academy, a world of saltpeter, (114) some of the most authoritative masters twist the principle of "in loco parentis" (my term) and rule like little gods. (152) An egregious example is swimming coach Tod Mortin. After a losing meet in which Mortin showed bad leadership, Travis Mather confronts him about it. Mortin knots a trembling fist on his desk and barks at the star student/swimmer, Your job is to be what I want you to be, do what I tell you to do, and to never ever complain. (47-48) Such tyrannical uniformity intimidates Wexford students, but they go along with it for the sake of grades and college applications. At worse, they are cowed into fearful silence by certain masters whom they suspect of harboring a terrible secret.
Despite the sad loss of their dear friend and school leader Cody Boyle, despite the school's unconvincing story that Boyle ran off to New York City and was decapitated there, despite their worry over the Cuban Missile Crisis, the murder of JFK, and increasing American casualties in Vietnam, Travis and his friends excel academically and athletically, win acceptance to some of the best universities, and go on to become high-achieving adults. From excellent teachers like Dr. Willard Janey, Wexford's highly respected instructor of life science and a hard-bitten survivor of World War I, they have gained important knowledge and critical thinking skills that spell success in their professions. By 1986 Travis has become an established Boston architect and Bronxie Hadron a super-spook CIA agent. This same year both return to Wexford bent on solving the long mystery of Cody Boyle.
Plot: Little Gods is a two-part story with a main plot and related subplots woven into a readable, keenly thought-out murder mystery. The first part follows the insights and actions of Travis Mather and his friends from the night of Cody Boyle's disappearance to their graduation in the spring of 1964. The second part, set during a tense time at Wexford in 1986, deals with the efforts of Travis and Bronxie Hadron to confirm their long suspicions about Cody's murderers, learn where he is buried, and effect a flawed justice that keeps evil and corruption contained in order to serve greater goods.
Characterization: Travis Mather is the heart of the story and Bronxie Hadron the head. As a youth and an adult, Travis is deeply reflective, often fearful and guilt-ridden, more acted upon than acting. The loss of his best friend Cody and mental paralysis that long keeps him from doing anything toward solving Cody's murder are factors in his divorce, alcoholism, philandering, and nightmares. At one point, he teeters on the brink of suicide. Later, after many sessions with "shrinks" on his obsession with Cody, (80) Travis looks back over his life: The lines from Hamlet play so well, the agonizing, the soul-searching, the attempt for a perfectly moral outcome to a morally outrageous crime [Cody's murder]....I wish I had been braver then [as a Wexford student], wish I had taken an earlier initiative because, like Hamlet, my provocations were grievous. (97)
Unlike Travis, Bronxie is a brilliant rationalist, stoic and steadfast in the face of adversity. His cynicism enhances rather than undercuts his successes as a student and a CIA agent. He complements Travis, helps him grow in awareness and confidence. Using CIA-type trickery, Bronxie leads Travis into implementing an illegal scheme that gives both men a sense of partial justice. Here David Hoof seems to be saying that in a violent world, sometimes you have to make the best of a bad thing.
Of the other characters who act on Travis, the most significant are his ex-wife Ariel Donovan with whom he reconciles and beautiful Rachel Barton. Suicidal near the end of the novel, Rachel entrusts Travis with a manuscript, a kind of tell-all about her private life while teaching French at Wexford Academy and Smith College. To Travis it is a love story, as good as they get. (196)
Themes: Unlike formulaic mysteries in which a super sleuth catches the criminal and justice triumphs, Little Gods is a sophisticated literary gem that includes obsessive friendship, a cover up, pederasty, heterosexual and homosexual love, father-son devotion, insights into the World Wars and the Vietnam War, shockingly new ideas on the murder of JFK and on U.S. culpability during the Cuban Missile Crisis, scientific details on burial and reburial, CIA tactics and tricks, and revenge. Especially interesting to me is the decifering of lines from noted authors used as codes by a killer to hide the body of Cody Boyle. While some themes and situations are digressive, they keenly contribute to character development and establish interesting historical contexts for Hoof's story.
Little Gods shows the influence of a A Separate Peace, John Knowles' novel about friendship and conflict in a private school, now considered an American classic and one of my favorites. In excellence David Hoof is comparable to Knowles. Both authors belong in the same pantheon.
Reviewed by Robert (Bob) Gentry
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Mary Sue Koeppel. Between the Bones. Canopic Publishing, 2005.
There can be no spot so deep, nor place so tender as that one which lies between the bones. Here is the place where flesh and spirit meet and where the secret pains and desires of a person live. Mary Sue Koeppel's new book of poems entitled Between the Bones takes us to many of these deep places where she helps us examine what really matters—living, loving, dying, grieving, and overcoming.
Mary Sue Koeppel has been the long-time editor of Kalliope, A Journal of Women's Literature and Art, and she has only recently retired as a full-time faculty member for the communications department of Florida Community College at Jacksonville. Her reverence for the language is most evident in all of her past academic endeavors—teaching, editing an internationally known literary magazine, and hosting the television shows Worth Quoting and Writer-to-Writer. Her love of language is also evident in her other books: In the Library of Silences-Poems of Loss—and in Writing Strategies Plus Collaboration.
Between the Bones is her latest book of poetry which is masterful in the use of image and sound. This book is divided into five parts, each section delving deeply into a private place. Hers is a world haunted by the icons of religious devotion. From the prologue "Getting the Angels to Talk" which addresses the human need to find God even if one has to make her "own angels," to the painful change from a nun's life to that of the secular in "Porous Bones," one cannot help but be moved by the difficulties of being faithful. Add to that the sensuous poetry about men and a delicious tension is created that is very powerful and dynamic. Included also are poems about fathers and brothers and "Anne at the Foxfire Gardens," and we get to hear the monks chanting and feel the "Echoes" of painful childhood memory which in its dreamlike recounting may or may not have really happened.
In Between the Bones, Koeppel's images sparkle with painful precision—those images about facing death "before the moon sets"; or those about grieving a loss "in the heaviness of kneeling"; or those where one can appreciate "your woman's warm skin" having not been touched in ten years; or those seen waiting for fireflies to "set the house aflame." And sometimes when the poems so cruelly open those visions we often leave to the dark spaces, Koeppel's poems will disarm you with a beautiful moment as in "9 P.M. Summer" which shows a world where "resurrection's in the sea, the sky, a sky hawk, the dolphin, far out, swimming."
Such poetry and images stir many feelings in those who love poems, and this book is filled with moments that remind and reinforce affection for the art form. Sit down with this book and be ready to feel your way through all of its difficult, beautiful realities and come out afterward with renewed joy in the bittersweet flavor of life.
Reviewed by Dorothy K. Fletcher, author of Zen Fishing and Other Southern Pleasures (Ocean Publishing, 2005).
Between the Bones is a structured and unified gathering of poems, poems that speak of fresh wounds and ancient healing, of emptiness and fulfillment. From the opening lines of "Getting the Angels to Talk" to the concluding words of the wonderfully apt "How to Say Good-bye Indestructibly," the reader is embraced by a voice simultaneously innocent and experienced moving along a path of sensual awakenings. This is a journey of shared solitude, patiently navigated by a poet skilled in traversing the harsh earth with a compassionate and boundless spirit. Between the Bones is a book of enduring breath deserving of a thousand reads-and more.
Reviewed by Phil Rice, Editor, Canopic Publishing
Order Between the Bones at Canopic Publishing Bookstore www.canopicjar.com
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Cormac McCarthy. No Country for Old Men. Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.
The film version of this novel stars Javier Bardem and Tommy Lee Jones (2007)
1980--Vietnam vet Llewelyn Moss is hunting antelope in a desert near the Texas-Mexico border—he finds dead Mexicans—heroin—millions in cash—drug deal gone bad. Moss takes off with the loot. Drug lords declare war on each other. Their lackeys chase Moss. So does Anton Chigurh, a killing machine/psychopath. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell tries to find Moss before Chigurh does. Bullets fly—blood splatters—bodies pile up. Lawmen can't stop the crooks or carnage. Sheriff Bell suffers weltschmerz, takes refuge in personal verities.
On one level, No Country for Old Men is a page-turning potboiler of a crime novel with fast action, explosive scenes and sparse narration—not what we have come to expect from Cormac McCarthy. The author still has a keen ear for Southern vernacular. But terse, bluff talk often goes on for pages without narrative frames. Lacking in this novel are the transcendent authorial voice, lyrical prose, and profound descriptions of nature that have brought McCarthy great acclaim in this country and abroad.
Still, there's much to praise here. Sheriff Bell functions as narrator, protagonist, penitent, and homespun sage. He's a good old boy type who seems even older than his 57 years. In thirteen italicized monologues, each beginning a chapter of the novel, Bell reflects on his life and the world. He's haunted by an act in World War II which he thinks is failure of duty and courage. He believes his long police service has been a second chance to make good protecting his small town and atoning for his failings. He sees a decline in good manners everywhere and narrowly interprets it as the sign of the end time of rampant drugs and horrible crimes: Any time you quit hearin Sir and Mam, the end is pretty much in sight. 1
For Bell as narrator and protagonist, Chigurh (pronounced "sugar") is stark proof that America is going to hell in a hand basket, no place for old men. Though he pursues Chigurh, Bell suggests that it's not going to be a successful chase: Somewhere out there is a true and living prophet of destruction and I dont want to confront him. Bell has no physical fear of any villain: I always knew you had to be willin to die to even do this job. But the simple lawman knows the spiritual risk of confronting the complex psychopath: I think it is more like what you are willin to become. And I think a man would have to put his soul at hazard. And I wont do that. I think now that maybe I never would.
Chigurh is arguably one of the most bizarre characters in any American art, as strange and terrifying as Hannibal Lecter in the film Silence of the Lambs. Chigurh's eyes are "[b]lue as lapis. At once glistening and totally opaque. Like wet stones." He's a master of firearms, a murderous houdini with his body. While handcuffed he strangles a deputy sheriff. He's especially fond of a cattle gun that he straps to his back and uses with deadly force:
He placed his hand on the man's head like a faith healer. The pneumatic hiss and click of the plunger sounded like a door closing. The man slid soundlessly to the ground, a round hole in his forehead from which the blood bubbled and ran down into his eyes carrying with it his slowly uncoupling world visible to see. Chigurh wiped his hand with his handkerchief. "I just didn't want you to get blood on the car," he said.
A hit man, who used to work with Chigurh, puts his fellow assassin's character in chilling perspective:
You cant make a deal with him....Even if you gave him the money he'd still kill you. There's no one alive on this planet that's ever had even a cross word with him. They're all dead....You could even say that he has principles. Principles that transcend money or drugs or anything like that.
Among McCarthy's villains Chigurh is not entirely unique. Eduardo, the cocky pander in Cities of the Plain, shows Chigurh-like traits in his climactic knife fight with John Cole over the epileptic prostitute Magdalena. As he and hero Cole circle and slash, Eduardo derides Cole as a gringo type the pimp despises:
In his dying perhaps the suitor will see that it was his hunger for mysteries that has undone him. Whores. Superstition. Finally death. For that is what has brought you here...and what will always bring you here. Your kind cannot bear that the world be ordinary. That it contain nothing save what stands before one.
Similarly, Chigurh taunts Carla Jean, Moss' wife:
When I came into your life your life was over. You can say that things could have turned out differently. That they could have been some other way. But what does that mean? They are not some other way. They are this way. You're asking that I second say the world. Do you see?
Chigurh recalls Judge Holden, the intellectual monster of Blood Meridian. Both smack of Nietzsche, a little of the sane philosopher, but more of the mad man who might have blathered his will to power like a loony Zarathustra.
Huge and hairless, the seven-foot Holden is the brains of a motley bunch of cutthroats hired by Mexican officials to kill Indians for gold. He loves to lecture his ignorant cohorts:
Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent....The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear....But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate....The freedom of birds is an insult to me. I'd have them all in zoos.
Near the end of the novel Holden lectures the Kid, the mostly violent unnamed character whose bit of decency Holden sees as betrayal of the judge's code of war:
A man seeks his own destiny and no other....Will or nil....Only that man who has offered up himself entire to the blood of war, who has been to the floor of the pit and seen horror in the round and learned at last it speaks to his inmost heart only that man can dance [the ritual of the true warrior]....
Far less verbose than Holden, Chigurh in his perverse superiority is just as power mad as the judge. Before he kills one victim, Chigurh portrays himself as a daring risk taker, "I let him [deputy sheriff] take me into town in handcuffs. I'm not sure why I did this but I think I wanted to see if I could extricate myself by an act of will. Because I believe that one can. That such a thing is possible."
To a kingpin concerned about more threats to his drug empire, Chigurh boasts, "You don't have to worry. Nobody else is coming. I'm in charge of who is coming and who is not....I have no enemies. I don't permit such a thing."
Holden is a mock renaissance man skilled in war, science, law, letters, dance, rhetoric, and etiquette. He roams a nineteenth-century Western wasteland like an uncanny ubermensch. Seemingly an easy target for bloody enemies but unscathed by them, the judge kills the innocent and the guilty. He suppresses incipient rebellion, defeats all adversaries. He's Satan without the wrath of God, Ahab without gloom and doom, Macbeth without fear and guilt, Lear without heart and soul. His fool is a poor idiot he rescues from filth and feces, keeps on a leash, and trains to have dog-like devotion to Holden alone.
In contrast, Chigurh is a lone wolf who stalks and kills in a twilight world of shifting values, declining law, and rampant crime. He's all the more terrifying because he seems to exist without origin or background, a wicked paradox, bland and mostly nondescript yet bold and intimidating. "[T]here wasn't nothing unusual about him," says a boy who had a brief encounter with the villain. "But he didn't look like anybody you'd want to mess with. When he said somethin you damn sure listened."
Heretofore McCarthy's fictional world has shown marked literary influences: Faulkner, the Bible, Melville, Shakespeare, Dante, Yeats, and perhaps other greats. The new novel, however, may be the start of a different direction for the author, one that draws less on literature and more on his wide reading in physics and the philosophy of mathematics and on his close association with scientists at the Santa Fe Institute, a leading think tank.
2 For the last four years McCarthy has had an office at SFI. He's the lone fiction writer there, unsalaried, a maverick without a computer. He told a recent interviewer, "I have only two responsibilities, to eat lunch and attend afternoon tea." On most days, even on weekends, when he's not tapping away in his office on an Olivetti portable typewriter, he's engaged in discussions with scientists about their specialties. If asked, he often looks over their texts before publication and gives insightful comments. His friends include Murray Gell-Mann, a Nobel Prize winner in physics; Geoffrey West, the British physicist turned biologist and the institute's interim president; and Sergei Starostin, the Russian linguist.
"I find it easier to talk to Cormac about what J. Doyne Farmer is doing than to talk to Doyne himself," said Starostin. Farmer is McKinsey Research Professor at SFI and the economist-physicist-gambler celebrated in Thomas Bass's best-selling book The Endaemonic Pie. He is perhaps best known as one of the founding fathers of what has come to be called Chaos Theory. He has also made important theoretical contributions to problems in complex systems, including machine learning and the origin of life.
What is Chaos Theory and how might it relate to No Country for Old Men?
The least arcane explanation of Chaos that I've found is in "Chaos Theory and Fractals," an article by Jonathan Mendelson and Elana Blumenthal, http://www.mathjmendl.org/chaos , parts of which follow:
Chaos theory describes complex motion and the dynamics of sensitive systems. Chaotic systems are mathematically deterministic but nearly impossible to predict....Behavior in chaotic systems is aperiodic....[N]o variable describing the state of the system undergoes a regular repetition of values. A chaotic system can actually evolve in a way that appears to be smooth and ordered....The weather is an example of a chaotic system....The presence of chaotic systems in nature seems to place a limit on our ability to apply deterministic physical laws to predict motions with any degree of certainty....A war is another type of chaotic system....
The authors go on to relate Chaos to Complexity. Interestingly, the Santa Fe Institute has been in the forefront of complexity research for decades.
Equilibrium is very rare, and the more complex a system is, there are more disturbances that can threaten stability....A complex system is neither completely deterministic nor completely random and it exhibits both characteristics. The causes and effects of events that a complex system experiences are not proportional to each other....Complexity can also be called the "edge of chaos." When a complex dynamical chaotic system becomes unstable, an attractor draws the stress and the system splits....In daily life we see complexity in traffic flow, weather changes, population changes, organizational behavior, shifts in public opinion, urban development, and epidemics.
Two drug factions—one American, the other Mexican—operate in No Country for Old Men. In microcosm each suggests characteristics of the worldwide criminal drug trade, a complex dynamical chaotic system skilled in logistics and economics, driven by addiction and greed, given to volatility and death. To its producers and distributors the system appears smooth and ordered when they make and market loads of drugs, thwart the law, and reap huge profits. To its consumers the system works well when they have ready access to suppliers, avoid arrest, and feed their addiction.
The novel begins with evidence of an unstable system: several murders, undelivered heroin, and $2.4 million in a case beside a dead man. Enter an attractor, Llewelyn Moss, basically a decent man who can't resist the temptation to take the money. In their desperate efforts to escape and begin a new life, Moss and his wife draw stress from the system, Chigurh, and the law. Chigurh also functions as an attractor, a psychopathic freelancer, both stressor and stressed, accountable to nothing except his own insane "principles." All these elements, then, cause the system to split resulting in an epidemic of murder and mayhem along the Texas-Mexico border.
Chigurh thinks and acts like a complex system with both deterministic and random characteristics. He likes to play a coin-tossing game of probability to determine a victim's life or death. He randomly picks a filling station manager, intimidates the man into playing the game. "I don't know what it is I stand to win," the man says. "You stand to win everything," Chigurh says. Confused, nervous, eager to get away from the bizarre challenger, the man calls the toss and wins. Later, Chigurh rejects Carla Jean Moss's argument for life but offers her a chance to live on the flip of his coin. She loses. He explains her loss deterministically:
Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. I had no belief in your ability to move a coin to your bidding....A person's path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly. And the shape of your life was visible from the beginning.
Chigurh moves and murders in dynamic, aperiodic ways. He constantly changes places and vehicles, destroys property, burns evidence. Some people he kills on principle, some for business, others at random. Thus he baffles and discourages Sheriff Bell and his fellow lawmen whose experience has largely been that of breaking up fist fights and catching predictable crooks. I doubt if a keen detective like Auguste Dupin, who solves the mystery in Poe's "The Murders of the Rue Morgue," could deal with a posthuman predator like Chigurh.
As for the criminal drug trade, it's no doubt flourished so long because so many people (for simple or complex reasons) choose to live artificially through chemistry. Then, too, justice systems often deal with the problem the way McIntyre does in this novel. With his clipboard, officious manner, obvious questions and simplistic notes, the DEA agent irritates the common sense of Sheriff Bell and his deputies. McIntyre suggests linear thinking and narrow approaches to solving crime, woefully ineffective in an age of chaos and complexity.
The staggering problems of our age call for new ideas to solve them. Perhaps they can be found in thinking places like the Santa Fe Institute and in the sights and insights of writers like Cormac McCarthy.
I've gone on pretty long about this novel because I think it offers readers far more than its negative critics 3 have found. I don't believe I've given away too much. What happens to Moss, Sheriff Bell and Chigurh? Please read the book and find out. I can't resist a hint, though: goodness retreats; evil gets a setback. The stage is set for a sequel. It will be interesting to see if it develops like No Country for Old Men. For here we see a new McCarthy who minimally and skillfully combines horror, humor and sentiment. Then as the story closes he sounds strong notes of affirmation. Horror I've illustrated enough. Here are examples of the other elements:
Humor (Bell's deputy and the sheriff at the first crime scene):
"It's a mess, aint it, Sheriff."
"If it aint it'll do till a mess gets here."
Sentiment (Bell on his wife of 31 years):
I'll wake Loretta up just bein awake myself. Be layin there and she'll say my name. Like askin me if I'm there. Sometimes I'll go in the kitchen and get her a ginger ale and we'll set there in the dark.
Affirmation (Bell recalling a trough he saw in wartime Europe and the man who created it):
I thought about it after I left there with that house blown to pieces. I'm goin to say that water trough is there yet. It would have took somethin to move it....I think about him settin there with his hammer and his chisel, maybe just a hour or two after supper....And I have to say that the only thing I can think is that there was some sort of promise in his heart. And I dont have no intentions of carvin a stone water trough. But I would like to be able to make that kind of promise. I think that's what I would like most of all.
This passage may represent McCarthy's appreciation of the value and potential of art, his promise to work long and hard at his craft, and his hope of creating a body of work worthy of his readers and posterity. He has already given us a rich legacy of literature. May it continue to grow.
1 McCarthy dislikes commas, uses few apostrophes and no quotation marks. For the benefit of readers unfamiliar with his work, I have added apostrophes and quotation marks.
2 My information in this paragraph and the next one comes from Richard B. Woodward, "Cormac Country," Vanity Fair, August 2005. This article grew out of the Woodward-McCarthy interview, only the second interview the novelist has granted.
3 McCarthy has more than a few influential detractors, among them Michiko Kakutani and Walter Kirn of The New York Times and William Deresiewicz of The Nation. While these three show some insight into McCarthy's work, they do so in slick, grudging ways. Particularly irritating is Deresiewicz's prejudicial remark (in his review of the new novel) about McCarthy's age and old men in general.
To readers interested in McCarthy scholarship, I recommend Cormac McCarthy: A Bibliography by Dianne C. Luce and Myth, Legend, Dust: Critical Responses to Cormac McCarthy by Rick Wallach.
Reviewed by Robert B. Gentry
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Cormac McCarthy's The Sunset Limited: Dialogue of Life and Death. A Review by Dianne Luce. Dr. Luce has been a leading member of the Cormac McCarthy Society since its inception. She has published many articles on Cormac McCarthy in scholarly journals, edited collections in the US and Europe, and published Reading the World: Cormac McCarthy's Tennessee Period. (2009) She retired as Professor of English at Midlands Technical College in Columbia, SC, where she had received the South Carolina Governor’s Professor of the Year Award in 2004.
“So what am I supposed to do with you, Professor?” a big, warm hearted black man in mid-life asks a slight, rumpled, nervous older white man in the tiny kitchen of a shabby “subway tenement.” Thus begins the questioning, ribbing, storytelling and debating that comprises the single act of Cormac McCarthy’s new, two-man play, The Sunset Limited, which ran from May 18 through June 25 at Steppenwolf’s Garage Theater in Chicago. With a running time of an hour and forty-five minutes, the play is an intense dialogue of life and death with the highest possible stakes--the white man’s life, the black man’s faith in God--a debate that resonates with much of McCarthy’s most philosophical work, one in which every line impales the heart.
Far and away the most effective dramatic work McCarthy has written, The Sunset Limited deftly poises between the allegorical and the realistic, blending McCarthy’s career-long ear for dialogue and dialect with his movement in some recent novels away from narrative commentary in favor of the objective, dramatic point of view. As the theater’s artistic director Martha Lavey writes, “That [McCarthy] chose the stage as a venue for this conversation suggests that he sees the drama of The Sunset Limited as one best unmediated by the narrative voice: he seeks the pure exchange of ideas and he leaves you, the audience, to negotiate your position in that argument. . . . The novelist abandons his guiding and shaping narrative voice to deliver that responsibility for point of view into our lap.”
This “pure exchange of ideas” is anything but bloodlessly intellectual, however. The play is dynamic, human, often humorous, but with ultimate dramatic questions at its core. Actor/playwright Austin Pendleton, who plays the professor, comments, “to me, these two men are so real and so alive that all [the philosophical material] pertains to them. It pertains to actual people. It doesn’t pertain to some abstract idea. This is what I always respond to in a play . . . . The characters are either convincing and urgent and alive to me, or they’re not. If they’re not, I don’t care about anything else. And if they are, I don’t care about anything else” (“Storytellers” 13). This capacity of the characters for making us care about and identify with them is key to the emotional life of The Sunset Limited, which is inescapably intimate and deeply personal to the audience. “Our emotional movement towards or away from these men is the registration of our belief,” says Laver (“Letter” 2).
The play’s director, Sheldon Patinkin, indicates that McCarthy’s agent sent the script to Martha Lavey of the Steppenwolf Theatre about six months before the production. The theater was to produce a new play by novelist Don DeLillo, Love-Lies-Bleeding, in the 2005-2006 season, and this one seemed an attractive pairing. It was also appealing to Lavey because she thought the role of the professor would be a good vehicle for resident actor Austin Pendleton. But we know nothing about when McCarthy might first have formulated the idea for such a work. It echoes much earlier work, especially the gnostic and existentialist novels and screenplay written in the late 60s and 70s. But its most profound thematic and technical parallels are with the Border Trilogy, especially The Crossing and the epilogue of Cities of the Plain, and even more strikingly with McCarthy’s new novel, The Road, in which a father confronts questions of suicide and even the mercy killing of his beloved son as they try to survive a nuclear winter in which all life has been destroyed except for a few humans—many turned utterly feral.
Patinkin joined the project as director after Steppenwolf had accepted the play for production. McCarthy worked with the company for about a week and a half during rehearsals, and he returned during the week of dress rehearsals and pre-review performances. Patinkin found him very flexible and easy to work with: receptive to changes suggested by the actors and director.
The Sunset Limited is scheduled to be published on January 9, 2007, as a Vintage paperback, but no script is available at this point. The commentary that follows is based on my viewing of the play on two consecutive nights (May 18 and 19) and on several lively discussions and follow-up email messages with other members of the Cormac McCarthy Society who attended (including Jay Ellis, Rachel Eustache-Ney, Marc Goldin, Susan Hawkins, Wes Morgan, Marty Priola, and Rick Wallach—to all of whom I am grateful for observations and insights). At the second presentation I took notes, recording many key lines from the play and surely missing many others as I wrote. Although I attempted to record these lines with scrupulous care, I have had nothing against which to check the accuracy of the quotations from the play that follow. And when I quote, I am usually reconstructing the context for these lines from memory. What follows, then, is more than a first impression, but entirely subject to reappraisal when a reading copy becomes available.
The title of the play is metaphorical: to ride the Sunset Limited is to take the final journey, to die, to ride west of everything. Although the play is set in a New York tenement, the actual Sunset Limited, as Rick Wallach has pointed out, is a southern transcontinental Amtrak train that for many years ran three times a week connecting Orlando to Los Angeles via New Orleans, El Paso, and other points south. The Louisiana and Mississippi tracks were destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, however, and now no service runs east of New Orleans. The tracks include those from several old lines, including the L & N (Louisville and Nashville), one of the major lines serving Knoxville when McCarthy grew up there. The name “Sunset” goes back to the Sunset Route of the Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio Railway and was used as early as 1874. Thus the Sunset Limited has figured for decades in the popular culture of the region. In the play, the black man, who is from Louisiana, introduces the metaphor, drawing from his familiarity with its presence in the blues and folklore of the South.
The play takes place in the “present,” which I take to mean the eternal present. It is the professor’s birthday, but just before the play opens he has attempted to make it his death day by throwing himself in front of the train in the subway station, becoming what his rescuer wittily calls the “terminal commuter.” He has checked carefully to determine that he is alone on the platform, especially that there are no children to witness his suicide. But the black man has come from the shadows or from nowhere to snatch him out of the arms of death, arresting him in his “amazing leap” and setting his feet back on the platform—much to the chagrin of the professor. The black man has offered to deliver the professor to Belleview, but the suicidal man has refused, so his rescuer has taken the professor to his own apartment, where the sound of the subway train rumbles ominously at intervals throughout their conversation. (Director Patinkin indicates that the subway sounds were recorded for the opening scene but that in the rest of the production they are random and real-time, a creative incorporation of the Garage Theatre’s location next to the Brown Line trestle crossing Halsted Street).
For the duration of the play, the rescuer (played by Freeman Coffey) labors patiently, diligently, and with all the cleverness, wisdom, and humor he can muster to keep the professor’s feet on the platform, while the professor persists in declaring querulously and petulantly, “I need to go.” (In the original script, the professor did not demand to leave the rescuer’s apartment until late in the play, and after a performance for the theater’s staff, the audience expressed puzzlement that he did not simply walk out. In response, the professor’s refrain was added at intervals throughout the play.) The apartment’s door is conspicuously locked with a ladder of five mismatched bolts, chain locks, and a key-operated deadbolt, then reinforced with a massive chain stretched between eyebolts on opposite sides of the door frame and a police lock wedged beneath the door handle—for a total of seven locks, which Rick Wallach connects with the Seven Seals. These locks are installed to keep thieves and other intruders out, but on this day the black man uses them to keep the suicide in until he can change his death-seeking philosophy. “Am I a prisoner here?” asks the professor, both challenging his rescuer and stating his existential position. And indeed, the black man guards the key to the deadbolt lock in his pocket. Early in the play, when the professor declares that he must go home, his rescuer agrees to release him but makes it clear he intends to accompany him. His unwelcome guardianship persists until finally, at the end of the play, the locks are all undone and the professor departs.
The Cast of Characters identifies the two principals merely as “White” and “Black,” emphasizing their allegorical opposition. Their differing races come into play in realistic characterizing strategies, but this is not a play primarily about race. The two men are polar opposites philosophically, one embracing life, faith, hope, love of humanity; the other devoted to death, atheism, pessimism, and misanthropy. Their racial designations reverse traditional light-versus-dark associations. White asserts, “I am a professor of darkness”; “The darker picture of the world is always correct.” Black tells him he may be mistaken, but White remains adamant. The two have opposed epistemologies, and through much of the play the dialectic-without-synthesis suggests that White’s belief “in the primacy of the intellect” is a kind of blindness—although of course he does not see it that way. White asks his rescuer, “Is it your belief that I lack understanding of the world in a way in which you do not?”—convoluted rhetoric that inspires Black to laugh appreciatively. But later Black, a convicted criminal turned preacher, tells White, “The light is all around except you don’t see nothing but shadow.”
Despite the incompatibility of Black and White’s philosophical positions and their full realization as individualized characters of differing backgrounds and experiences, it is also possible—even necessary—to read their conversation as a dialogue of self and soul, as Susan Hawkins suggested to me. Such a dialogue occurs in several of McCarthy’s earlier novels. One instance appears in Suttree when the protagonist speaks with his shadow cast on the wall of his houseboat, another occurs in the conversations between Blood Meridian’s Holden and the kid, and still another between Billy and the dreamer in the epilogue of Cities of the Plain. In The Sunset Limited many viewers will find it possible to identify with both characters’ points of view and will recognize in their debate the internal dialogue of the modern or postmodern, or the competing voices of spirit and intellect within. The plot movement of The Sunset Limited hinges on a reversal from Black’s dominating the argument to White’s—from faith to despair. But rhetorically and emotionally the arguments of soul and intellect are balanced, poised in a dialectic that is finally about itself. Like some of Dostoevsky’s dialogues, the play represents humankind’s eternal dialogue with self, and with God.
Despite his sense of his own exceptionalism, White is every lost man; but as a spokesman for the spirit, Black’s allegorical significance is richer and more ambiguous. If Jesus is everyman, Black argues, then every man is at least partly Jesus. Though Black is not entirely orthodox (he does not believe in original sin, for instance), he delivers a largely Christian message—at least in its surface trappings. He is a human avatar of Jesus, Jesus in his everyman manifestation; he is a seeker—not a doubter but a questioner, as he tells White; he is the “big black angel” who seeks to deliver White from destruction but whose blessing is rejected; he is the gnostic messenger from the alien good God; he is a projection of the professor’s own being—the alienated, abjected spirit within. He was White before he became Black. He tells White that he has tried it White’s way but concluded that “what it got me” was “death in life.” Imprisoned and near death (like White in the present), Black underwent a conversion experience when God spoke to him in his convalescence. And this conversion—the defining event of his life—has made him a spiritual messenger who ministers to others—mostly the drug addicts and alcoholics in the subway tenements. These men seek death and oblivion in their own way, although what they really want, according to Black, is what everyone wants: “to be loved by God.”
The two men are strangers to one another, and they share relatively little of their own histories, but some outlines are sketched in. Black is more willing to share his history than is White, but since Black is admittedly trying to put White in his “bag of tricks,” White (and we) can’t be certain that the stories he tells are “true.” Scheherazade-like, he tells stories to save his brother’s life, narrating his jailhouse yarns to keep White with him and to communicate a life-in-life philosophy to this man whose very existence is in jeopardy. Black seems to have lost his family when he was like White; he deflects questions about marriage with jokes, but he reveals that he had two sons who have died. While serving a seven-year sentence for murder, Black brutally beat and crippled another inmate who had assaulted him with a knife and cut him nearly in two. As Black relates it, while he lies in the prison hospital with his two halves stitched together, he hears a voice speaking to his heart, telling him “If it was not for the grace of God, you would not be here.” His vision teaches him that he is not in charge. “I didn’t know what that burden was until I laid it down,” he says. Released from the prison of his death-in-life, Black has devoted his new life to helping his troubled brothers; his role in the play and in his life is to be his brother’s keeper. But he also lives in hope that God will speak to him again; and for him, this is one of the things at stake as he labors to save White’s life: he hopes that if he is successful he will hear God in his heart.
When White expresses deep skepticism about Jesus’ speaking to humankind, asserting that he thinks it is all in Black’s head, Black affirms that Jesus is, indeed, in his head. Jesus has not spoken to White, and thus the empiricist believes He does not exist, but Black suggests that God may not bother to speak to those who won’t listen. To counter White’s despair, Black asserts that “If God is God,” He can speak to any heart at any time. For Jesus to talk to you, “You don’t have to be virtuous. You just have to be quiet.” For Black, the answer to the problem of living is connecting to God and to his brothers. As he probes for the reasons for White’s suicide attempt and devises strategies to help him value his life, some of the first questions Black poses concern White’s family and friends.
White is reluctant to answer his questions, but it gradually emerges that he has no one in his life because congruent with repudiating God and his own life he has rejected all others. To the professor of darkness, “The idea of God is just a load of crap” and hell is other people. (There are several allusions Sartre’s No Exit in the play, especially in the central image of the locked door.) White describes his mother as “Kafka on wheels,” and he has refused her request that he visit his father (an attorney for the government) as he dies of cancer. The professor has no wife or children. He once had a relationship with a woman, but he claims, “We ended it.” However, the context and Black’s reaction imply that either White ended it or he drove her away. Whenever Black reaches out to touch him, White cringes and pulls back. White admits that he hates his colleagues at the university and that in his heart he curses the people he sees on the subway each day. The subway, of course, is the world, and when White declares that the subway tenement building in which Black lives and ministers to his fellow man is “a horrible place, full of horrible people . . . not worth saving” or that “This place is a moral leper colony” on which “even God [must give] up at some point,” he is not so much making a social class statement as a philosophical one.
White announces plainly that he dislikes other people; “I’m not a member,” he says, “I never wanted to be.” Both men agree that White is a special case. He is deeply depressed, they both see, but he explains that anti-depressants do not work for him. White claims to have nothing in common with other riders on the Sunset Limited, men and women who are there because of specific experiences of personal suffering. Rather, the professor’s is a more existential and perhaps irremediable condition.
Thwarted in his effort to remind the professor of his connection to his fellow humans, Black asks him what he does believe in. It is characteristic of the professor that in the first three-quarters of the play, despite his intellect and breadth of reading, he has much more difficulty articulating his beliefs than does the preacher with his home-spun language of experience. What he finally manages to formulate is that what he has most valued is books, music, art—that he is what Black calls a “culture junkie.” In the past, these humanistic works, ironically, have sustained him even as he hated humanity, but now he believes that “Western Civilization went up in smoke in the chimneys at Dachau.” The world of the arts and humanistic values has almost vanished, he believes, and he envisions “the death of everything.” His knowledge of human history has led him to conclude that happiness is “contrary to the human condition” and is not to be expected or achieved in life. White himself recognizes that his devotion to culture has contributed to his misery, yet he cannot let go of his intellect or his exceptionalism, even though he partly agrees with Black that his education is pushing him toward suicide. Like Billy Parham in Cities of the Plain, White concedes that “I think about minimizing pain,” and finally he admits to Black that “The one thing I won’t give up is giving up.”
At first it seems that the professor may be no match for the preacher, Black, who is entirely confident in his ability to serve as a conduit for the message of Jesus. And it seems that progress is made when the professor agrees to share a meal with him, succumbing to another of Black’s kindly-meant strategems. “You break bread with a man, you move to another level of friendship,” Black tells White. According to Patinkin, McCarthy’s script called for an intermission during which the meal would be prepared off-stage, but the director felt strongly that this intermission should be deleted to maintain the play’s momentum and its dramatic trajectory. As McCarthy collaborated with the company, he somewhat reluctantly approved reworking the scene to allow for the stage business of Black’s cooking the meal in the small set’s fully functioning kitchen.
Black makes a pot of coffee and warms up a soul-food dish he learned to make in Louisiana, a multi-cultural melange of ingredients that include mangos, rutabagas and other fruits and vegetables—none of them white, he jokes (“I’m just messin’ with you, professor,” he laughs more than once in the play). Ironically, the death-seeking misanthrope, who has needed to be coaxed to eat, finds the dish representing humanity in all its variability quite palatable: “This is good,” he repeats appreciatively, “This is good.” But when the communion is finished, he again moves anxiously to the door, announcing that he must go.
Throughout the play White resists Black’s arguments stubbornly, but Black lures White away from the exit by feeding him, either stories or food. This suggests a certain infantile quality in White that is reinforced in his dress. He wears a t-shirt under a knit track suit that manages to suggest pajamas. And the body posture of Austin Pendleton, though he is a slender man, makes his belly protrude like that of a toddler. Freeman Coffey’s much larger stature and more commanding demeanor contribute further hints that his is the more mature wisdom.
The professor is smart enough to see through most of Black’s ploys, and Black is smart enough to recognize that in White. At one point, Black tells White about a custom among African-American males, “playing the dozens.” He explains that in the game, men trade insults and the first one who gets angry and leaves loses. White immediately sees the trick Black is up to, responding sarcastically, “If I find you irritating and leave I lose?”, and Black more or less admits that he has been caught. White is nevertheless detained temporarily by Black’s playing on his pride, and he lingers as long as Black’s language or stories or food interests him.
But playing the dozens becomes the template for the reversal and climax of the play, when White finally accesses his rage and forcefully explains why he seeks death: real death, nothingness. To him “The world is basically a forced labor camp from which the workers are led forth by lottery, a few each day, to be executed.” Life is a horror: Dachau. Everyone would commit suicide if they shared his clarity about the world’s reality, he claims. Black has told him that without spiritual meaning, “The road is just made up of road.” But White’s perspective on the linearity of life is that “everything you do closes a door ahead of you, and finally there is only one door left” and that “There is no direction, no meaning.” The worst thing that has ever happened to him, he snarls at Black, was “being snatched off the platform by an emissary of Jesus.” Quite undoing the meaning of Hamlet’s internal debate, White asks, “Who would want this nightmare if not for fear of the next?” It is not Shakespeare’s version of Hell he fears, but Sartre’s. He yearns for darkness, and he wants the dead to be dead forever. He abhors the idea of an afterlife, the conventional idea of heaven or hell, in which he might again be thrust into the company of his fellow beings who have tormented him on earth—specifically his mother. “Maybe I want forgiveness,” he concedes, “but there is no one to ask it of.”
White again demands to leave, and admitting defeat in the face of White’s inability to listen, to hear, Black unlocks the door. But he calls after White, “I’ll be on that platform in the morning; I’ll be there,” suggesting that the spiritual voice cannot be silenced even when it cannot be heard. Earlier in the play, White has asked Black if he is a test of Black’s faith, and at that point Black laughs off the suggestion. But in the play’s final moments, it seems that the eloquence of the intellect has indeed shaken Black, rather as the Judge’s formidable presence and rhetoric undermine what little naïve belief and instinct for goodness reside in the Glanton gang in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Black addresses God, demanding, “Why did you send me here if you were going to give the words to him and not me?”
Ironically, in this game of dozens White’s anger has won him the argument; but in leaving Black behind—in closing the door on the voice of hope, compassion, and spiritual wisdom—he seems likely to lose or throw away the life he does not value. Black has lost his gambit to help this special case, but he has not decisively lost his faith in God and his own mission. He slumps to the floor in defeat, but affirms, “That’s all right. That’s all right. I’ll still keep Your word.” However, his final lines reveal his anguish that God does not answer him, does not speak to him again: “Is that all right? Is that all right?” The play ends, then, with the mysterious silence of God.
Lavey, Martha. “Letter from Artistic Director.” Program for The Sunset Limited [May 2006]: 2.
Patinkin, Sheldon. Telephone interview. 27 June 2006.
Pendleton, Austin. “Storytellers.” Interview with David New.
Steppenwolf Backstage. [2005-06]: 12-13.
The Sunset Limited. By Cormac McCarthy. Dir. Sheldon Patinkin. Perf. Freeman Coffey and Austin Pendleton. Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, Chicago.18-19. May 2006.
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